TREASURE ISLAND -- Mika Cheesman clenched her hands as she sat down recently with a private investigator. She’d flown from the state of Washington, to a house on the beach, to find out who she really was.
Lynn-Marie Carty put her hand on Mika’s shoulder and opened a purple photo album to a yellowed newspaper article.
"Here’s when you were lost in Penn Station, and they did the story about you in the New York Post," Carty said, pointing to the clipping from 1975.
Mika, 46, nodded. She remembered the day. She’d been 4 years old when she was separated from her mother in the Manhattan train station. For four decades, she’d wondered about her family, where she came from.
Carty flipped the page, to a picture Mika had never seen before. It was an 8-by-10 studio shot of a preschool girl with gummy smile and tiny braids.
"That’s not me, is it?" Mika said, her face pinched in disbelief. "That’s not me."
"Yes," Carty said quietly. "It is."
Mika can still see her mom, hair cropped short and straight, fumbling through her purse as they walked through Penn Station. Her mother walked a few steps and turned around. She handed Mika the purse, then took it back. She walked some more and turned around again. Something seemed wrong.
They passed a candy store, and Mika walked inside, lured by a glass display case with rows of chocolate.
"I think she said yes," she recalled, about her mother letting her go in the store.
When Mika turned back, she was gone.
She wandered down the busy walkway, looking for her, until a police officer found her and cradled her in his arms.
Where’s your mother? he asked.
She ended up in a Manhattan orphanage run by Sisters of Charity. Opened in 1873, the New York Foundling Hospital then cared for 180 children.
One of the nuns told the New York Post that "Missy," as they called her, had arrived in a maroon coat and slacks and black shoes. She seemed well-cared for and was in "excellent" condition. Doctors estimated she was 4, but the Missing Persons Bureau had been unable to locate her family.
Missy didn’t talk for more than a month. She eventually connected with a caretaker named Pat, who took her home every weekend and showed her the beach.
Two years later, in 1977, Missy was adopted by a family from Spring Valley, N.Y. They gave her a birth date of Oct. 17, 1971 and named her Michelle.
Her new family had five biological children and an adopted son, all much older.
Over the years, she said, she faced both physical and sexual abuse, but everyone looked the other way. "I don’t want to remember it, but I do," Mika said.
She recalled her adoptive father as a good man, but he worked a lot, and the abuse took place when he was gone. Eventually, he split with her adopted mom, and she didn’t see him, either. She said her family did not attend her high school graduation.
For a year, she was homeless in New York City. She travelled with hippies to Vermont, Ohio, Illinois, Missouri and California, marking her time with festivals and Grateful Dead shows. She married and divorced twice and raised five children, moving to Utah, Arizona and Colorado.
She changed her name to Mika after she first left home and became determined to find her "real family."
In 1999, Mika obtained her records from the New York Foundling Hospital. There wasn’t much and quite a bit was redacted. When she’d finally talked, she’d told a counselor about coming over on a boat. She mentioned tigers. The mystery deepened.
As an adult, Mika couldn’t remember a boat or tigers, but she wondered if her mother was mentally ill.
"Sometimes, I feel like I’m not settled," she said. "Like she wasn’t settled."
She remembers two other snippets before Penn Station. In one, she saw herself laying next to her mother in a room with a bed and a dresser. She thinks they lived there. She did not recall any other children or male figures.
In her other memory, she and her mother waited at a bus stop. It was around sunset, the sky still light. But when the bus driver pulled up, her mother said they could not get on because there were no lights.
In 2001, Mika placed a plea on a genealogy website:
"I am looking for my birth mother, i was left at Penn Station in New York City, on September 24th 1975 at the age of 3 or 4 years old."
Back then, Carty, a Treasure Island mother of three and former Mrs. Florida pageant semi-finalist, was a fledgling private eye. She saw Mika’s post and called.
Mika said she didn’t have any money. That’s OK, Carty said. Her Dad had always taught her to help people. And Carty was testing herself, trying to figure out if she could reunite families.
Eventually, Carty put together a program - for talk show host Iyanla Vanzant - featuring families she’d reunited. Mika’s was the only case she couldn’t solve, but she brought her on anyway, hopeful that someone in the national audience might offer information.
No one did.
A few years later, Mika took a DNA test and learned that genetically, she was closely linked to the Mende and Temne people of Sierra Leone. She was interviewed for a USA Today story on African Americans utilizing DNA to find their roots.
Now "I have a place where I can go back and say, ‘This is who I am; this is my home,’ " a 34-year-old Mika told a reporter.
She thought often about that day at Penn Station. She wasn’t angry with her mother. More, curious -- about her real name, her birth date, her mother’s circumstances and state of mind.
Every now and then, Carty would spend time digging into it. She researched boat landings from Sierra Leone to New York around the time Mika was lost. She spent hours on missing children databases. She dug through old newspaper clips.
In 2017, Carty sent Mika a DNA test for Christmas.
With Mika’s new results in hand, Carty compared them against several databases, from Ancestry.com to MyHeritage.com.
Up popped a match. A first cousin.
Carty sent messages and called Kelly Warren. But it wasn’t until Warren, 56, saw a picture of Mika that she knew she had to be related to her Uncle Buster. They looked so much alike. So she called and asked if he had a daughter born around 1971.
"Yea, I did," he replied, "but she passed away."
Mika was with her third husband, who is from New Zealand, when she learned in January that Carty had found her family. While Carty, 61, sorted out the details, Mika waited patiently. She agreed to come to Florida. One of Carty’s neighbors donated a place to stay. A long-lost uncle paid for Mika’s plane ticket.
Now Carty was telling Mika about her family for the first time, flipping through the pages of the photo album she’d put together to tell the story.
"So your birth parents are still both alive," Carty said.
"What?" Mika yelled.
She covered her eyes with both hands, stomped her feet. It seemed unreal.
Carty flipped another page in the Mika album, to reveal a picture of a woman.
"So you were right at 4 years old about your birth mother being a fragile person," Carty said. "She was 26 years old. Her name was Barbara. I’ve spoken to her. She went home from the train station without you, and she had to be hospitalized, and everyone in the family says she was never the same person."
They gazed at the black and white image for a moment. Mika’s mother had smooth, dark skin and large, kind eyes, like Mika. Carty said she lives in Wilmington, Del., cared for by a niece. Mika felt sad for her mother.
"Your father’s name is Richard," Carty continued. "People in the family call him Buster."
Richard Smith, 75, lives in Johnstown, Pa., and needs dialysis three times a week.
He and Mika’s mother had dated. They’d lived in Atlantic City, N.J., and separated when Mika was 4. He’d gotten a job working on the stage crew for the Ice Capades. When he came back to visit, Mika and her mother were gone.
Mika’s mother, Barbara Wright, had been one of eight children raised by her mother and her grandmother in a sprawling house just outside Wilmington. Smith went there looking for his daughter.
He said Wright told him that Mika had died, that she’d fallen three stories from a building in New York City.
"I’m not angry," Mika said, after blowing her nose in a tissue. "I never, ever was angry at my other family. I knew something was wrong."
Carty wasn’t done. Mika had an older sister, named Vivian.
"No, no, no," Mika said, a big smile spreading across her face. "Really?"
She also had an uncle, Carty continued, a popular Tallahassee pastor. He was her mother’s brother, and he’d been there the day she was born, June 30, 1971. He’d brought them home from the hospital. Her name had been Linette Wright Smith.
Mika shook her head in disbelief.
"For years," Carty said, "he kept a picture of you in his wallet."
Two days after learning about her family, Mika donned a cream-colored, floor-length dress with gold trim and a purple and orange head scarf.
She bounced up and down anxiously. "I’m about to crawl out of my skin," she said, clenching her hands again.
Carty had arranged for her to meet her uncle and her sister and to talk to her mother and father on the phone.
The Rev. Joseph Wright of Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church of Tallahassee arrived first with his wife, Helen.
He has the same smooth, dark skin Mika has.
"Bless your heart," he said to his niece.
They hugged, and then he pulled back.
"I want to first say we humbly apologize for not protecting you," he said. "I hope you forgive us."
Mika smiled broadly, happy to see him.
He explained that he’d gone into the Air Force. He’d seen her again when he’d come home on leave.
"Doesn’t she look like her mother?" he said, turning to Helen.
"And you look like my boys," Mika said to him.
He recalled that his mother had launched some sort of investigation and tracked Mika to an orphanage, but she’d been unable to locate her.
"Nobody knew what happened," he said.
They held hands, and he bowed his head and prayed. "Thank you for restoring this daughter back to her family after 45 years," he said.
Vivian Jackson, 53, showed up soon after, having traveled from Georgia. Her son marveled at how much Mika and Vivian resembled each other.
"That’s my sister," Mika said.
"You’re so beautiful," Vivian said.
They realized they’d both had five babies, and they’d both spent part of their lives in foster care. "We’ve been through the same thing," Vivian said.
Mika asked her to call their father.
Richard Smith had tried to raise Vivian, who had a different mother than Mika, but struggled and gave her up. They later reconnected.
"He’s not doing so good," Vivian said.
On the speakerphone, Smith was elated to hear his daughter’s voice.
He explained that he’d been heartbroken all those years ago by the news of her death.
"But now that I know that you are alive… I’m so happy."
Mika promised to come see him soon.
They then called Mika’s mother.
"Hello, who am I talking to?" said an older woman.
"Your daughter," Mika responded. "This is Linette. This is your daughter."
Mika’s mother didn’t seem to understand.
"How things been treating you?" she asked.
"You remember Linette?" Mika’s cousin said to her aunt on the other end of the line.
"Shouldn’t she be somewhere around 70?" Mika’s mother asked.
Then, "You’re that investigator, right?"
"No, this is your daughter."
"Tell her I love her," Mika said. "I love you."
Mika’s cousin came on the line. "She’s overwhelmed," she said.
"I understand," Mika replied. "I can hear it."
Mika, who works at a food bank for AmeriCorps in Olympia, Wash., promised to come visit, then she hung up, a little wistful.
She was overwhelmed, too. But she’d been thinking over the last couple of days about her family, the one she regained, and she told Carty and the others that she’d made a decision.
She planned to change her name one more time.
From now on, she’d call herself Mikalin.
Contact Leonora LaPeter Anton at [email protected] Follow @WriterLeonora.